More than anything else, those spoken with said the general public labors under a number of misconceptions about homelessness. Here are three of the most significant mentioned:
Misconception No. 1: The homeless just need to get jobs
“People will say it’s the fault of the person who is homeless,” said Sarada Leavenworth, executive director of Volunteers of America, “and if they’d just get motivated, just work, they wouldn’t be homeless anymore.”
In fact, she said, more than 70 percent of the people residing at the Durango Community Shelter and Southwest Safehouse are working, and the rest who are able are actively seeking work. Many of the people living in campsites, their cars and with family are also working.
Leavenworth said if the community got to know the residents at the shelter, they would be inspired.
“People are remarkably biased,” she said. “If they saw the incredible amount of work these people, many of whom have been through the wringer, are willing to do for their lives with just a little support, after the level of crisis they have experienced, well, it’s almost unthinkable to most of us.”
She cites numerous examples of people turning their lives around.
“We helped a woman who had been in an abusive relationship for 10 years, abusive to the point where she wasn’t even permitted to go to the grocery store alone,” Leavenworth said. “After a couple of months at the Safehouse, she was working full time, and her kids were stable and doing well in school.”
Many people ask why people struggling with housing don’t just move away.
In part because this community is theirs, too, where they have family, friends and lives, but also because moving costs money, too. First and last month’s rent, a deposit, perhaps a truck rental to transport their household goods, all require significant funds, several people said.
Misconception No. 2: Housing is available; you just have to pay for it
The vacancy rental rate is less than 2 percent in La Plata County, and rent has increased 18 percent since 2011, according to the La Plata Homes Fund. That is fair market availability, though, and does not address the severe lack of affordable housing.
“Subsidized rentals basically incarcerate the working class,” said Rachel Taylor-Saghie, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County. “People can’t afford to jump out of subsidized housing without basically doubling their income, because they’ll also lose child care support. We’re weeding families out of the area.”
Three out of five people who come into her office to inquire about a Habitat home have turned down a promotion at work because it wouldn’t begin to make up for the assistance that would be lost by the bump in income, she said.
The current building effort focusing on multi-household units also is forcing families out of the area because builders are concentrating on one- and two-bedroom units, Taylor-Saghie said.
“It’s almost like discrimination against families,” she said. “A single mother in a two-bedroom apartment may find herself being charged an additional $150 to $170 per person over three (people). Tons of people are with relatives, or two or three families are sharing a mobile home. If rent continues to go up, it will inch them out completely.”
If people move into outlying communities – Bayfield, Forest Lakes, Mancos, Aztec or out in the county – reliable transportation becomes an issue, she said. Gasoline, maintenance and sometimes an upswing in child care costs because the parent has to build in driving time all make that addition to the budget a challenge, she said.
“We’re arriving at an ‘other-side-of-the-track’ mentality,” Taylor-Saghie said. “Let’s put the workforce over there; we’re over here. Some of these families are paying well over what a mortgage would be if we had more housing in the $200,000 range.”
Misconception No. 3: Homelessness equals hopelessness
“I’m encouraged by a number of things,” Leavenworth said.
Every officer at the Durango Police Department goes through Critical Incident Training to learn how to deal with people who are mentally ill, and they help safely transport people to the detox unit, she said.
The new La Plata Integrated Health Clinic operated by Axis Health System also has changed the picture significantly. Once a week, an Axis representative visits the shelter and the Safehouse to help residents complete the paperwork. They often have an appointment within a day or two.
“They treat with a team approach, so people may go in with a bellyache and still get some mental-health support without having to face the stigma of asking for it,” Leavenworth said.
Some of the most significant work is being done for homeless or nearly homeless veterans. The four programs in Durango that deal with veterans’ housing issues have helped 100 veterans annually for the past few years, she said. The shelter has eight beds dedicated to homeless veterans for transitional housing, and voucher programs and other services are helping veterans achieve stable housing, sometimes helping them upgrade to housing that’s not substandard.
Andrew Sperling, director of federal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agrees.
“We’re getting traction with homeless vets, which is really good to see,” he said. “As we’re seeing with other homeless populations, if you deliver all the services together, change can happen.”
Additional shelters aren’t the answer, he said. A better solution would be different kinds of housing options for different populations whose needs are nuanced, Sperling said.
“We’re seeing that housing first, with no barriers, is key,” he said. “Someone who’s been homeless for a decade, is schizophrenic with an alcohol problem, is never going to be clean and sober on their own; it’s never going to happen. At the same time, you can’t put an elderly person with schizophrenia next door to an elderly 80-plus woman with early dementia, even though HUD describes the one-bedroom units (as being) for the elderly.”